Rhiannon Stephens

Associate Professor of History

Columbia University

Heyman Center Fellow 2016-17

Project Description:

Contesting Status: A Conceptual History of Poverty and Wealth in Eastern Uganda, Rhiannon Stephens’ book project, is a longue durée conceptual history of poverty and wealth in eastern Uganda from the mid-first millennium C.E. through the early twentieth century. The project is grounded in the premise that we can only understand modern changes in ideas about poverty and wealth in Uganda, changes that have resulted from growing incorporation into global trade networks, colonisation and integration into the capitalist system from c.1800, by understanding them in much greater historical depth. Despite these changes, durable bundles of meanings and concepts survived into the twentieth century, albeit in altered form, and continue to shape the ways in which communities view the poor and the rich. Poverty and wealth are twin poles formed in relationship and opposition with each other, although individual conceptualisations also highlight the different social and political fields they inhabit and shape. In writing this history, Stephens’s aim is to uncover not only the intellectual content that eastern Ugandan people gave to these economic and social concepts, but, in particular, to trace changes and developments in that intellectual content. To do so, she explores ruptures and continuities in these concepts among Nilotic and Bantu speakers and their ancestral speaker communities, focusing on their intersection with gender, lifestage and power. During her time as a Heyman Center Fellow, Stephens was able to revise a journal manuscript that grows out of this project and complete drafts of two chapters of the book manuscript.

Rhiannon Stephens specializes in the history of precolonial East Africa from the late first millennium CE through the nineteenth century. Her first monograph, A History of African Motherhood: The Case of Uganda, 700-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), traced the history of marriage as a social institution and an ideology across over a millennium of Uganda political, economic and social change. She is currently working on a second monograph that is a history of poverty and wealth as economic and social concepts in eastern Uganda over the past thousand years. She is also the co-editor of Doing Conceptual History in Africa (Berghahn Books, 2016), which critically examines what it means to write conceptual history on the continent. Her areas of specialization include the intersection of gender with social and political organization; popular conceptualizations of poverty and wealth; and cultural and linguistic exchange in multilingual settings. She draws on a range of methodological and interdisciplinary approaches to write longue durée history of oral societies, including comparative historical linguistics, comparative ethnography, analysis of oral traditions and archaeological evidence as well as more conventional archival research.